Monday, July 9, 2012

Normandy - D-Day Beaches

Our day in Normandy started off in Le Havre with a full-day planned in visiting the 1944 D-Day invasion area between Le Havre and the Cherbourg Peninsula. The trip entailed a fairly long drive out of Le Havre, over the Seine at its estuary using the new Normandy Bridge (a spectacular engineering feat) then out into the countryside.

Our guide told us that Normandy was known for three things Hedgerows, Apples and Cows and we saw plenty of these as we drove along although they were hard to photograph from the bus.

Farming in Normandy had followed a pattern for centuries. Farms were smallholdings. The boundaries of the fields were planted with living hedges three foot high walls of dirt with trees and bushes planted thickly above that over the years resulted in a virtually impenetrable and opaque barrier from field to field very useful to the Germans who established defensive lines using this terrain. Very costly to the allies who needed to break through.

Many of these fields were planted with apple trees spaced apart to provide grazing for the cows. In other cases planted with corn, wheat grasses or whatever.

Today, economic realities have resulted in the removal of many of the old hedgerows so that fields can be larger and of a size suitable for mechanized farming. Apple trees are also planted closer together for earlier ROI meaning the cows are no longer able to graze there.
The D-Day invasion has a particular historical resonance for me for a number of reasons.
First, obviously because of its symbolic significance the Western allies finally landing in the heart of Hitlers Europe the beginning of the end

Second, the conceptual the incredible bravery of the young men who had to land in the face of fixed powerful defensive positions that the Germans had years to construct

Third, the practical or logistic, the incredible organization that was required to move all the people, equipment and supplies across the channel on an ongoing basis as the advance progressed.

The invasion plan required a certain set of circumstances for success.

The moon needed to be full to provide light for night operations, the weather needed to be calm enough to allow the ships and landing craft reasonable passage and a very low tide at dawn was necessary so that the beach defenses could be identified and passage cleared.

From movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan and innumerable documentaries we know that a delay of 24 hours was required because of the weather and that Eisenhower had to make a go decision for June 6th when he was told there would be a good weather window.

The entire invasion armada moved out from multiple ports in the South of England Americans to the West; British, Canadian and French to the East and rendezvoused at an area in the channel codenamed Piccadilly Circus.

From there the landing craft, support ships and combat vessels fanned out towards the five major landing sites The Eastern Task Force towards Sword, Juno and Gold beaches; the Western Task Force towards Omaha and Utah.

During the late night of June 5th into 6th Airborne troops landed on either side of the invasion area to protect the vulnerable flanks of the landing. The Germans had flooded many of the lowlying areas for just such an eventuality.
The British airborne troops landed at the Orne river and its canals in gliders, captured vital bridges over the river and canals and had to hold on until the advancing troops could relieve them this was depicted in the longest day with Lord Lovat arriving in relief with his bagpipes playing!!!

American airborne troops (the 82nd and 101st Airborne) landed by glider and parachute to the far west on the Cherbourg Peninsula. This was where the D-Day actions depicted in the Band of Brothers took place.
A massive naval and air bombardment that was variously effective then opened up (to supplement what had been months of unremitting fighter and bomber raids). At this point the allies had virtually total control of the air

More or less on-time and simultaneously allied troops landed between 6.30 and 8.30am on June 6th at their predetermined beaches what followed, on the German side regarding defense and counterattack and on the Allied side in chaotic and savage fighting has been recounted in a far better way than I ever could. My thing was I wanted to see what the place really looked like today.

Our tour started to the East at Juno Beach so that the Canadians on the ship could see where their compatriots had landed. The Canadians alone had responsibilities for this sector. They were all volunteers. Based on the experience in the First World War Canada did not institute universal conscription. Fighting here was savage and the Canadians suffered heavy casualties the names are on plaques at the memorial.

Today as you stand on the flat beach spreading towards Sword to the East and Gold to the West, and you look at the German batteries and their open field of fire, you marvel that people kept coming.

A Cross of Lorraine erected at this beach marks the spot where General de Gaulle landed immediately post-invasion.

Early in the war Canadians had been involved in a largely unsuccessful commando raid on Dieppe. The results of this action told the planners that the Germans defended the Channel Ports very strongly and that they were unlikely to take any easily or intact during the invasion. Thus they had to bring their port with them for resupply purposes.

The port they created in England, in prefabricated sections, and brought across the channel with the armada was called Mulberry. Mulberry A for the American sector; Mulberry B for the British. 

The actual Mulberry harbors had to include breakwaters, sunken caissons and old ships as an outer wall then wharves at which freighters could dock and unload and floating metal roads over which tanks, trucks and other vehicles could transport men and materiel
This brilliant concept was equally great in execution and over its wharves thousands of tons of supplies and troops poured until the fixed ports could be liberated and opened. 

We visited Arromanches to see the remains of the harbor, some of the ruined elements (as a result of a heavy storm) and to visit the museum. Absolutely fascinating. 

The beach at Arromanches was not a landing beach. Nor was it shelled so it could be pristine for the huge traffic load expected. It was taken by the British from inland.

From Arromanches we drove inland to Crepon (one of the first French towns to be liberated) where we had lunch at Ferme de la Ranconniere a beautiful old manor house (dating to 1462) now a hotel and restaurant.

A cheese dish was our first course Normandy cheese from the town of Isigny.

One of the noblemen who invaded England with William was from there the Count dIsigny. In England this was Anglicized to Disney. In America his descendants remembered their experience with cheese and came up with a famous mouse. Im just saying this is what they told us.

A statue in Crepon depicts Sergeant E Hollis of the British regiment the Green Howards who won the only Victoria Cross awarded on D-Day for outstanding acts of bravery here as they repelled a major German counter-offensive
We continued our trip westward after lunch first to visit Colleville-sur-Mer the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. This was the landing site of the 16th Regiment of the First Division the Big Red One

This cemetery is unbelievably moving it is so very peaceful sitting as it does on a cliff overlooking the ocean. A huge swathe of white gravestones (9386) in beautiful green lawns. One father next to his son. Thirty three sets of brothers. Occasional floral tributes and little flags from visitors. A monument and statue commemorating the campaign and American youth.

A wall with a long list of the (1557) Missing in Action just gone. Counterpoint to the many graves of those unidentifiable (307 graves known only to God)!!

As you look down from the cliff you see the defile that the infantry had to attack through. The defenders in the high ground.

Then went down to Omaha Beach and got the view from there. A memorial at the water represents those bodies falling on the left and those, finally, on the right upright and heading out.

Also a memorial for the 1st Infantry Division.

Finally we drove to Pointe du Hoc a point on the cliffs above and to the west of Omaha Beach with a commanding view of the Channel and guns that could fire a shell 12 miles away. Despite heavy bombing and bombardment these emplacements constructed as they were with German effectiveness withstood it all and it had to be attacked by US Rangers who had to land by sea, scale the cliffs and fight hand-to-hand to make the position safe.

Unbelievably they succeeded. With huge losses.

Finally, learned something invaluable today. In the 100 Years War the British archers established major superiority over the French because they used the Long Bow vs the French Cross Bow.

A British archer had to pull back on the bowstring with his fore- and middle fingers and let the arrow fly.

The French were so scared and angry at these accurate and deadly archers that if they caught on they would cut off their right fore and middle fingers.

The British taunted the French (those unharmed at least) by giving them the up-yours gesture.

Became V for Victory in Churchills hand

Always learning

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